The Greek and the Butcher: Contests of Romanitas in the reigns of Leo I and Anthemius


What follows is the introduction to the final chapter of my forthcoming book. It is just a draft so feel free to comment, I will post an excerpt tomorrow.

The sixth-century chronicle of John Malalas records a letter written purportedly by the Eastern Emperor Leo to his Western counter-part Anthemius. Composed in the aftermath of Leo’s infamous assassination of the Alan generalissimo and senior Eastern consul, Aspar, in the summer of 471, Leo explained to his protégée, that he had destroyed Aspar and his sons in order to be the one ‘who gives orders not takes them’. To avoid being a docile puppet, he advised Anthemius to immediately assassinate his supreme commander the Gotho-Sueve Ricimer and then eliminate Leo’s rival the Roman noble and future Western Emperor Olybrius (ruled 472).

Ricimer, however, anticipated this threat, and one of the soldiers that he had posted at the entrances to Rome had intercepted Leo’s magistrianus Modestus as he attempted to smuggle the incriminating letter to Anthemius. Alerted to the plot, Ricimer acted swiftly; summoning his nephew the magister militum Gundobad from Gaul. Priscus (frag. 64) provides the further detail that after losing a pitched battle against Ricimer’s forces, Anthemius’ supporters had quickly abandoned the emperor and gone over to Ricimer. Gundobad found Anthemius attempting to blend in amongst the beggars within the church of the apostle Peter. He then unceremoniously beheaded him.[1]

While we can rightly question the chronology and veracity of aspects of this account, it sheds needed light on the factional rivalries that frequently defined turbulent mid-fifth century Roman politics. We should not, however, see these disputes as a battle between noble Romans and rogue barbarian factions.[2] Modern consensus dismisses the older paradigm that suggests that these men were motivated primarily by issues of ethnicity. Recent opinion particularly rejects the long-standing contention that ‘Germanic’ and Isaurian solidarity as a prime-mover of affairs during Leo’s and Zeno’s reign.[3]

Military elites dominated this world. [4] Yet, pure physicality represented only one element behind these men’s ascendency. While dangerous and prone to acts of violence, the soldiers who rose to the top in this competitive world also depended on their wits to overcome their rivals. Indeed, defeating one’s enemies in the world of public opinion was just as vital as besting them in armed conflict. Remnants of these conflicts are found in the literature that survives from the age. This reality helps to explain why in ancient textual sources the Eastern Roman aristocrat Anthemius, could be idealised both as an articulate manly martial aristocratic Roman or derided as a bumbling unmanly Greek, while the former soldiers Leo, Ricimer, and Aspar could be portrayed, on the one hand, as the Empire’s martial manly protectors, and on the other hand, disparaged as murderous deceitful ‘barbarian’ butchers.

The letter quoted above may be seen as a reflection of these propaganda wars. Reading the subtext of Malalas’ account (echoed in Priscus) one sees that Anthemius’ failure to check the control of ‘barbarians’ like Ricimer, led to the Western emperors’ increasing marginalisation and the rise ultimately of non-Roman rule in Italy. According to this paradigm, the Western half of the Empire fell because its emperors failed to stand up to these barbarian strong-men, in contrast, in the East, Leo I’s assassination of Aspar and purge of his ‘Germanic’ supporters had helped to assure the Eastern Roman Empire’s survival.[5] This view on the reasons behind the collapse of the West and the survival of the East found in writers like Procopius is still followed by more traditional scholars. [6]

This chapter uses the militerised regimes of Leo I and Anthemius as a pivot to discover the ways these men at the top of mid-fifth century Roman world wielded ‘Christian’, martial, and civilised Romanitas as a means of highlighting their right to rule while simultaneously marginalising their opponents as heretical and uncouth non-Romans. Particular attention will be paid to the rivalries between Leo/Aspar and Anthemius/Ricimer. Unlike the absurd rhetoric describing the manly martial Romanitas of feeble puppet-emperors such as Honorius and Arcadius, the martial qualifications of these men is apparent. By examining closely at the careers of these men who had all risen to prominence from within the army, I therefore hope to uncover how these individuals truly—and not just rhetorically— garbed themselves in martial manliness. Far from accidental, the rise of these men as the primary players in the fifth-century Roman world, represents a larger societal rejection of the de-militerised Theodosian emperors. Additionally, we shall see that the dominance of military men in these imperial regimes serves as inconvenient reminders for those who would argue that fifth-century Byzantine society was becoming less androcentric and/or turning away from traditional views of imperial leadership based on martial qualities.


[1] Malalas, Chron. 14.45 (373-5). Priscus (frag. 64) provides the further detail that Anthemius’ forces after losing a pitched battle against Ricimer’s forces had quickly abandoned the emperor and gone over to Ricimer. Anthemius was then beheaded by Gundobad after attempting to hide amongst the beggars within the church.

[2] H. Elton, ‘Ilus and the Imperial Aristocracy under Zeno’, Byzantion 20 (2000), 394–407.

[3] Full discussion in Croke, ‘Dynasty’, pp. 147-203.

[4] For the exaltation of the military classes over the class of civilian functionaries under Ricimer, see Sidonius, Carmen 1.9, and under Leo, see Malchus, frag. 3.

[5] Philip Wood (‘Multiple Voices’, pp. 301-3) reads this passage as an instance of Malalas being ironic, maintaining that the chronicler sought to present Leo as a barbarian along the lines of Ricimer. I doubt that the rather clumsy historian Malalas was capable of such subtlety. So too did Malalas (and probably his source) rationlise Leo’s elimination of the generalissimo, by maintaining that Aspar had been planning a rebellion.

[6] Procopius Wars 3.6, 4.6.1-21; Treadgold, Byzantine State, pp. 154-6; Heather, Roman Restoration, p. 22.


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